The Zanzibar Tavern and Beyond

Once it was obvious in late January of 1968 that the “Crew Cuts” were finished I joined a trio comprising Tommy Danton, originally from the U.K. on vocals, and Wayne McKenzie on Hammond B3 organ, snow still on the ground in Peterborough Ontario.

Tommy had then been performing in Canada for almost a decade. I first became aware of him when Robbie and I used to walk up and down Toronto’s Yonge Street dreaming of the day when we too might have engagements in clubs such as the Zanzibar where on summer evenings in 1959 we ‘d glimpse “Tommy Danton and the Echoes” (*) performing through the clubs smoky haze.Its windows as did most bars in the 1950’s displayed rather conservative posters announcing the presence of performers of stage screen and television. In those days bars stopped serving liquor at 11.00 p.m., and could continue serving alcohol only if customers entered a part of the club where food service was available. In about 1961 when I first played drums in the Zanzibar everyone moved upstairs where food was available after 11. Then the only attraction was the musicians on stage performing in rather warm stage lights often interrupted by howling feed back from an old field microphone echoing through the house PA system’s mysteriously placed speakers. Sometime toward the mid-60’s about when the British pop influences and the folk music style were developing, Rock and folk performers began replacing progressive jazz players and “beat” poets in the old coffee houses of the Yorkville area; the Zanzibar atmosphere changed abruptly as the rather staid old Zanzibar became the “with it” multi-media Zanzibar Circus. Television sets and screens were placed around the room where patrons could watch themselves on television and slide shows wherever they sat. And into this multi-media morass came the Go-Go dancer. Now the band on stage was not the only attraction: the slides, the television, the pulsating strobe lights and the dancers all became part of a circus-like extravaganza.

In March 1968 Wayne and I decided to work as a duo with myself on drums and vocals and Wayne on Organ. We travelled a circuit of Ontario towns arranged by Tommy who in 1968 had also been working as a booking agent.(**)

image of peter and wayne

Wayne Mckenzie,Wayne St John, Boyd Sarney, Wayne Versage

When we got tired of travelling we set up in the Zanzibar where we eventually played the suppertime shift six days a week alternating sets with Art and Joe Larmand’s group; at some point Wayne St. John of New York City joined as vocalist and guitarist. Finally Wayne Versage on vocals and guitar and organist Boyd Sarney replaced McKenzie and St. John till the end of my Zanzibar stay. Although the Zanzibar originally presented one live show in the evenings, by the time Wayne and I had begun the supper shift it had become with the closed circuit TV’s and slides an all day show place beginning with performances by famed visiting jazz players at mid day and ending with house musicians at the law enforced closing time.

Music Trends : The Hammond Organ

About this time the Hammond B3 had become an essential instrument for the jobbing group because it allowed one musician to take the place of two: a bassist and a pianist, but it was also a torment for Wayne and me on the road to lug up and down stairs with its Leslie speaker, lighter but bulky with nothing to grip. Until I heard that old RonDun recording I’d forgotten that Wayne played the organ bass peddles with his shoes off and its surprising that it took me so many years to recall that Wayne’s stocking feet had been our bassist. In the Zanzibar organists played blues and swing tunes best. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Howard Roberts a guitarist with organ accompaniment, and Ray Charles inspired and required most of us to play tunes from these organists’ repertoire. In retrospect those mid 1960’s organ centered styles now seem the “swan song” of the decades-old American jazz-swing based pop era while outside the Zanzibar a new global pop style was developing.

During the late 60’s the Zanzibar had what I’d assumed was a B3 always on stage but which Ronnie Russell in his “Carmen’s Red” says was an Hammond A 100. A drum set was also a permanent stage fixture. This set up allowed any instrumentalist or vocalist to be backed up by the drum and organ rhythm section.

The Zanzibar Audience

During the approximately 2 years that I performed at the Zanzibar a variety of visitors regularly appeared in the audience, people such as Bill the Glass Eater who sat on a bench right under center stage. Between sets Bill who made frequent trips to the east coast used to tell me about the things he could eat; things made of glass were his specialty of course, but he once told me how he ate a bycicle. And along with the memorable regulars and famous jammers were David Clayton (Sonny) Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears, and boxer George Chuvalo; and even a second cousin from my mother’s side of the family, a country music fan whose name I can’t recall, in to watch Art and brother Joe Larmand performing with a country music flare, and who I haven’t seen since. It was there that Kelly Jay visited to tell me that he and his latest group (eventually known as Crowbar) had been rehearsing with Ronnie Hawkins, just after The Band’d left, when they were visited by none other than the Beatles. Kelly’s mention of the Beatles visit in retrospect now seems of greater significance as it adds perspective to the image I have of Toronto exerting a kind of magnetic attraction on entertainers from everywhere through the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I don’t recall how Wayne Versage, Boyd Sarney and I concluded our stay at the Zanzibar, I only recall our one nighter dance engagements at Blue Mountain, and hotels throughout the Toronto area.

Peter De Remigis, Wayne Versage, Boyd Sarney

Our trio eventually became a quintet with Jerry Penfound, from London Ontario and formerly with the Hawks on sax, and Don a second keyboardist on a Fender Rhodes.

But whether our Zanzibar gig ended in 1969 or 1970, what was important to me about ending that engagement was that I was concluding my career on the Yonge Street strip which I had begun in the Brown Derby some 10 years before.

Reviewing this Zanzibar page some years after I’d put it online, almost as an afterthought, a kind of necessary conclusion to my drumming in bars career; I’ve come to realize that of all the clubs I’ve played the Zanzibar is a symbol of a “changing” society. When Robbie and I first peered through its front doors it seemed as distant and mysterious as a Gothic temple, a cocktail lounge in keeping with that ethereal epithet “Toronto the good”, with a policeman’s eye on every major sreet corner. When I eventually drummed on its stage, the “Zanzi” and Yonge Street itself seemed to have joined through the bar room’s open doors as if its walls and plate glass windows were inconveniently confining for the crowds that on some weekend nights’d line up from the sidewalk trying to get in. Then came the multi-media electronics of closed circuit televisions, strobe lights, new pop styles, continental suits and long-haired men like Frankish kings; changing social mores, and topeless go-go girls adorning the stage and its unrelenting acoustic projections.

These changes inside the Zanzibar paralleled developments in broader society: a bifurcation of pop music audiences appeared as different styles of pop entertainment seemed to represent the attitudes and interests of various social and political groups, a development that’s vivid when comparing recent pop fans to the teen adherents of new-born Rock and Roll who all identified with one Rock and Roll milieu and its singular Rock and Roll style. I’ve even heard a comment that certain pop music was enjoyed mostly by young girls, a characterization not likely in the age of the teenager when everyone male and female was or wanted to be a “teenager” and above all an R and R fan. Maybe because my drumming career began about when me and all my friends were teens thriving on Rock and Roll as it over rode the varied pop styles of an era that included swinging crooners, Frank Sinatra’s revival, semi classical Mario Lanza and Ferlin Husky’s plaintif country lyrics I’d assumed that the music I played was for kids and as the musicians in the Derby kept saying while me, Robbie, Scott and Pete arrived from those teen dances “It won’t last”. So I was surprised when adults began requesting Rock and Roll tunes, tunes that I’d always associated with teens, not their parents.

A nice contrast between the frivolous age of the teenager and the more politically aggressive “Rock” star age of more recent times can be seen in the movies “Hairspray” and “School of Rock”. “Hairspray” highlights a kind of innocent silliness that pervaded much of pop music in the early Rock and Roll era, while the “School of Rock” presents “Rock” as a vehicle for challenging the established social order. Buddy Holly’ s hiccuppy, subbmissively romantic styling in the 1950’s of “Rave On” seems almost obsequious when contrasted with Bruce Springstein’s political rage in “Born in the U.S.A.” of the mid 1980’s.

As Rock and Roll became “Rock”, and the god-like “Rock Star” replaced the group of nameless neighbourhood idols on stage, stars emerged who seemed adulated by certain age groups, some revitalized performers of earlier generations, others seeming not too teenaged from the start, and of course today’s idols, not teenage idols but “American Idol” s.

Yonge and Yorkville

Playing in the 1950’s and 60’s sort of kept the blinkers on; or maybe that’s just the way life is, like the way me and those I played with saw and listened to only what we needed until there was nothing else to see. Our world was playing and the sounds we made; and everyone I knew seemed to like the same teenage style music. But of course I did not know everyone. I did not know or play music with jazz musicians except the odd time when I sat in after hours, and I did not know folk musicians or musicians following the British Style. Keeping my playing attention blinkered on the rather narrow “strip” of Yonge Street between Bloor and Queen, and travelling into Northern Ontario and the Midwestern U.S.A. during the 1960’s let me miss the Yorkville scene and the musicians that I believed were largely influenced by British pop groups, performers who may have listened to the same R and B performers as I did; yet the music that they inspired in the Yorkville players of the mid 1960’s and early 70’s seemed more folk-like than blues-like in its lyricism than the swing based shuffle, or the good time Rock and Roll bounce played by many 50’s Toronto performers.

And being from an earlier musical and historical milieu, for me Yorkville had nothing to do with pop music or the newer sometimes more lyrical “Rock”. My experience of the Yorkville area was of a neighbourhood of old residences turned into dingy after hours progressive jazz clubs, where I was introduced to a strange array of exotic coffees such as cappuccino and cafe au lait which I learned years later was probably the same as the Italian cafe latte, and of course espresso, Italian coffee diluted with neither milk, nor foam. And stumbling through make shift jazz-coffee spaces up and down stairs in these dimly lit old houses were the remains of the beat generation blended with Bohemian artists, writers and singers with obscure central European names. By the time I began to update my Yorkville experience all that had disappeared; the street and the neighbourhood of old rooming houses and mysterious coffee houses had been renovated: many appeared as boutique store fronts, or upscale restaurants and bars. My voice teacher Portia White recommended as jazz vocalist Don Franks’ singing coach moved from her place above a store on Yorkville’s north side near University Avenue to an apartment block somewhere east of Yonge below Bloor. What was new obliterated what was probably less than 10 years old, what had been rooted in a kind of local rendering of popular American music began diluting and becoming more British, more worldly, more global.

The clash of the old swing based “Rock and Roll” and the new unsyncopated more earth bound “Rock”

It is a curious fact that although R and R in its rock-a-billy and country beginnings contained the swing rhythms inherited from the previous pop era of the big bands (most striking in the drum and walking bass *** rhythms of “Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel”, the finger poppin’ swingin’ 1956 TV performance of Why do Fools Fall in Love? Frankie Lymon and Teenagers photo by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and in the country swing performances of Bill Haley and the Comets;**** as noteworthy though less surprising was the swinging with rocking offbeat of Red Prysock’s band) these rhythms were quickly forgotten: the swinging dotted eighth and sixteenth note cymbal ride became a more even string of full eighth notes without syncopation that seemed to put the snare drum offbeat into a kind of inflexible rhythmic box. I still with some effort can recall what attracted me to what I thought of was Rock and Roll. The Red Prysock 33 1/3 long play record titled “Rock’n Roll with Red Prysock” with tunes like “Zonked” and “Fats Place” and jacket notes saying ‘”It’s the Beat that does it…'” seem to magnify this ambiguity which has come to puzzle me as I recall how my drumming was forced to keep up with changing pop music rhythms once I’d begun playing with the Consuls. Only Norm’s Prysock-like sax performances and Bruce’s Fats Dominoe styled hits remained of the spirit of Rock and Roll of Prysock’s and Dogget’s early 1950’s beat that’d mysteriously led me to become a drummer. There was something in that early Rock and Roll “‘beat’ that kids [were] dancing to” that in itself seemed to rekindle the living pulse of music, a something that I felt, not thought. But changing pop styles and increasing instrumental power caused my original drumming motivation to dissipate as I found myself pounding my snare and cymbal to drive the increased amplification of instruments that became electrified imitations of their acoustic forbears: the bass fiddle the tallest and fattest started looking like a guitar hung round the bassists neck, the almost unmoveable piano became an over your shoulders keyboard and even the hollow lute-like acoustic guitar started looking like an axe as its hollow body was replaced by a dense axe-shaped support for an electrical pickup; where once the pickup projected the sounds of a wooden hollow body into a tiny 10 inch amplifier placed on stage almost apologetically, the creations of this now transformed instrument, still called a guitar, are amplified through a wall of mysterious humming cases that dominate the stage and maybe even the audience.

And as all the instruments in the pop group became more electrically amplified abandoning their original acoustical construction, playing techniques became more percussive as though the “beat” had united melody and rhythm into a single electro musical force. Chords, blocks of notes and chord progressions came to replace scales and intervals of notes usually associated with melody as chordal rhythms formerly accompaniment to melody came to share and sometimes obliterate instrumental melody with only the vocalist’s lyrics able to maintain what was once called melody.

Tempos too have become more rigid: swinging performers tended to adapt to a wide variety of tempos(speeds) from a high flying up tempo allegro to a slow almost tempo less adagio while European influenced “Rock” players seemed bound to a more consistent middle of the road range of tempos as though the generally straight eighth note cymbal ride physically restricted quick playing facilitated by swing drummers bouncing sticks off cymbals in faster tempos, a technique almost impossible in playing a “Rock” eighth note cymbal ride. Harmonic development and resolution/cadence also have become less evident in later “Rock” than in the swing/blues based structure of some early “Rock and Roll” compositions. Not too long ago while watching the British led talent show American Idol I remarked to my wife that musical performances seemed to not have an harmonic conclusion; tunes seemed to just stop. This omission in recent pop tunes of an harmonic ending, a final chord progression that once marked the conclusion of classical music sections and sections and endings of standard jazz tunes seemed to have disappeared, perhaps anticipated by the fade that was replacing the harmonic cadence ending even when I was playing drums. So why did I become a drummer?

Jazz, Be bop & Jazz-rock

Sometime during the 1970’s talk about jazz began to annoy me because I believe that what people had begun calling jazz then bordered on Rock and Roll. My annoyance was my reaction to a fundamental change in rhythm from the traditional dotted eighth and sixteenth note cymbal swing of jazz to a generally even eighth note and persistent off beat of Rock. The new brand of music called jazz (jazz-rock) often seemed rhythmically unlike jazz; its tempos like those of “Rock” were difficult to vary because the confining “Rock”- like rhythmic box dominated with even eighth note cymbal and steady snare offbeat on the second and fourth beat of each bar; cymbals seemed to arbitrarily punctuate with intermittent crashes instead of maintaining jazz’ sometimes hushed rhythmic pulse as the cymbal and bass drum subtly interrupted to measure soloists’ harmonically meandering improvisations. By the be bop era some jazz performances had become so airy that tempos seemed difficult to pin down. Some rode so fast that according to drummer Kenny Clarke all a drummer could do was to abandon trying to play a steady four bass drum beats to a bar and simply drop bass drum bombs to punctuate improvisations rather trying to keep time with the bass, piano/guitar. And in slow tunes this rhythmic and harmonic vagueness often seemed without tempo as everyone seemed lost in their own individual harmonic and rhythmic explorations held together by a kind of metaphysical bond having nothing to do with musical terminology.

Perhaps the vagaries that developed out of bop needed to be stopped, made simpler, less cool, more human when “barbershop” like “doo wop” then Rock and Roll arrived to bring back music’s lost harmonic, rhythmic predictability. But cool bebop’s, hipster influences did not go away: they continued in smallish and dark after bars closed clubs, and in fewer bar rooms to a diminishing clientel while interest in Fock and Roll became our current global infatuation with Rock that has electronically consumed both classical music and jazz in performance and harmonic structure so that today when someone talks of jazz and jazz festivals I’m unsure of the kinds of performances they have in mind. Recently a man on CP24 television announced an up-coming jazz festival would be highlighted by Dianna Ross and Stevie Wonder both stars of a bygone pop, Rock based era.

It’s funny though how “change” happens and you don’t even notice it’s happening, and sometimes how things happen by surprise like a sudden lifting of a curtain behind which a forgotten show returns to life. We’ll that’s how part of the “beyond” of “The Zanzibar and Beyond” came back when Ronnie Russell, Roger Far, and Bruce Staubitz visited over a month ago. Ron gave me a CD of an old performance at the RonDun tavern then owned by Dave Cooper of the Zanzibar. When I played it I was amazed at how well we’d been recorded live on a stage amidst a bar crowd, obviously not where you’d expect ideal recording acoustics; but as far as I was concerned we sounded better than we could’ve sounded in any of the studios I’d been in. And this was an unrehearsed performance, almost a jam session, even though Wayne and I’d been working together for some years and Ronnie and Wayne had also worked together. I still don’t recall who was on saxaphone. I ‘d all but forgotten The Blue Moon Band at the RonDun in what seemed an impromptu get together, a “jam session” even; some time around when Versage, Sarney, Penfound and me were playing one nighters and rehearsing in Sarney’s rec room.

back to The Beatles

(*) Link to a 1958 photo of Tommy Danton playing drums and singing in Cicero, Illinois.This photo of Tommy was taken from Willowdale Graffiti Blog’s first archive and suggests that John Dawson was one of the “Echoes” performing with Tommy when Robbie Robertson and I peered into the Zanzibar in 1959.

(**) Today, August 31, 2013, after reading the 2009 publication Canuck Rock a book mostly about Canadian pop bands’ uniqueness, Tommy’s British origins have increased in significance especially when one also considers English Ernie The Consuls’ jovial first bassist,Bobby Lenthal singing Gems bassist, and British Billy Kent the 2’nd lead singer of The Suedes . And though no one including the writer of Canuck Rock can identify Canada’s apparent longest lived band other than as Little Caesar and the Consuls; from 1957 when it began until 1959 the name was just “The Consuls”, a name likely inspired by a British automobile, the Consul.

*** Today in repairing a link to a Carl Perkins performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” I was reminded of the precise percussive quality of the early rock and roll walking acoustic bass as compared to the the less articulate guitar-like electric bass that tended to get lost in a homogeneous blend of electrically amplified sound.

**** Tommy Steele was Britain’s Elvis Presley who recorded “Elevator Rock” in 1956 backed by a swing orchestra with almost as much driving swing as Red Prysock’s band.

Inspirations in the 1950’s

My Yonge Street stories

Site Map

Back in the good old days
Walkin’ round
Takin’ the stage
And poundin’ the drum
From place to place
And gettin’ to know
People all over town and
Way up north where it gets real cold like 40 below;
Down south to blue-white shores with
Beaches like snow
And cotton fields stretched to the blue;
Then up again
To the streets of good old TO.

Site Map

Peter De Remigis